The petrochemical industry plays a crucial role in modern industry. It produces intermediate products derived from fossil fuels or biomass, which are then used as the building blocks for a host of everyday items.
A Wide Range of Uses
Plastics, textile fibers, adhesives, detergents, cosmetics, drugs, food packaging, pipes and containers are just some of the everyday items that incorporate petrochemicals.
Petrochemicals are also vital resources for other sectors:
- Automotive industry: Interior components and tires.
- Construction: Insulation materials.
- IT and household appliances: Computer, radio and television components.
- Health care: Precision instruments and hospital equipment.
New opportunities are also opening up for petrochemicals. At the global level, the industry is being bolstered by growing demand from Asian markets such as China and India. In the United States, soaring shale gasShale gas is found in deeply buried clayey sedimentary rock that is both the source rock and the reservoir for the gas... production is reinvigorating the outlook. The petrochemical industry is also focusing on the use of biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin... sources, a sector that is experiencing significant growth. In 2010, 700,000 tons of the 265 million tons of plastic produced were bio-sourced. This volume is forecast to reach 5 million tons in 2020.
The petrochemical industry is being bolstered by demand from emerging markets, especially China and India.
Fossil resources such as gas, coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... and oil primarily supply energy for heating and transportation. The petrochemical industry uses 10% of these resources, in the form of refined products (See Close-Up: "The Three Stages of Refining"):
- Naphtha, a heavy distillate, is the crude oilOil that has not been refined. derivative most widely used by the petrochemical industry.
- EthaneEthane is an alkane with two carbon atoms (formula CH3-CH3). It is always found in small amounts with... is obtained from natural gas.
The petrochemical industry uses two processes to obtain intermediates:
- Steam cracking: Using high temperatures and steam, naphtha molecules are broken down (“cracked”) into smaller chains to produce lighter preservation (hydrocarbons)The final phase in petroleum system formation, after a deposit has accumulated... called olefins. These include ethylene, propylenePropylene or propene is an alkene (olefin, see definition) with three carbon atoms and a formula of CH2=CH-CH3... , butane and butadiene.
- Catalytic reforming: This process converts naphtha into aromatics, such as benzeneA monocyclic aromatic hydrocarbon with the molecular formula C6H6... or tolueneToluene, also known as methylbenzene or phenylmethane, is an aromatic hydrocarbon (member of the benzene family)... , two solvents frequently used in the chemical industry, as well as xylene. It takes place in a distillation tower at temperatures above 500°C. The olefins and aromatics obtained then undergo other reactions to produce finished products (See Infographic : "Petrochemicals, from Naphtha to Plastic").
An Industry Committed to Reducing Its Environmental Footprint
Like other industry sectors, the petrochemical industry complies with environmental safety standards such as international organization for standardization (iso)Independent, non-governmental membership organization. Its 165 members are the national standards bodies from 165 countries... 14001 and the E.U. REACH regulation. It has implemented waste incinerationTechnique used to convert waste into energy. The waste is burned, producing heat, power or both. , water treatment and safety systems to shrink its environmental impactAny change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from human activity... .
Different Types of Plastic
Ethylene and propylene can be assembled into giant molecules, or long chains of atoms strung together in different ways. These polymers are the raw material of plastic.
Commonly available as pellets, they also come in powder, paste and liquid form. They are further processed to produce different types of plastic:
- Polyethylene, the most common plastic in the world, is used in all types of packaging, from grocery bags to milk bottles and containers, as well as toys, pipes, films and other items.
- Polypropylene, which can be made into a more rigid and shock resistant material, is used in car bumpers, dashboards, furniture and other applications.
- PolystyrenePolystyrene is a plastic with a wide range of uses, the most common being expanded polystyrene... is used in televisions, household appliances, CD/DVD cases, yogurt containers and insulation.